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REVIEWS Margaret Kelleher. The Feminization of Famine: Expressions of the Inexpressible? Durham: Duke University P, 1997. In the past few years, literary scholars and social historians have been paying attention to the many investigative and philanthropic texts written in the nineteenth century by middle-class reformers and social engineers. Scholars such as Amanda Anderson (Tainted Souls and Painted Faces, 1993), Lynette Finch (The Classing Gaze, 1993) and Judith R. Walkowitz (City ofDreadful Delight, 1992), to name only a few, have examined how literature and other social discourses developed certain shared strategies to construct the sympathetic and policing gaze that the middle classes turned upon the poor, the fallen, the diseased, and the insane. Revealing common assumptions about representations of suffering and the relationship between suffering object and benevolent observer, these studies have provided valuable perspectives on the Victorian project to make visible the pain of its others. Margaret Kelleher's The Feminization of Famine makes a significant contribution to this body of scholarship by investigating the discourse of famine in fictional and non-fictional texts spanning one hundred fifty years. Through astute readings of literature on the Irish (1846-47) and Bengal (1943-44) famines, Kelleher reveals striking rhetorical similarities between these two literatures. A more integrated comparative approach and a greater commitment to the ethical and theoretical issues raised by this study would have made this timely and interesting book even more useful. Kelleher's central argument, defined in her first chapter, concerns the gendering of famine images. In an extensive survey of eye-witness reports, Kelleher demonstrates that famine is figured in the feminine: despite public perception that more men die in famines than women (a perception not supported by statistical evidence), famine's most frequent image is that of a gaunt mother struggling and failing to feed her dying child. This image suggests domestic and social catastrophe, and thus "[t]he figure of woman is the means thorough which the 'sorrow of the country' is given form, its pain and horror communicated" 7 8 Victorian Review (152). Kelleher's point is that here, as in so many cases, the woman's body is a potent carrier of meanings that the woman herself does not control. In some texts, the female body's symbolic potential is heightened in representations of a child attempting to nurse at the breast of his or her dead mother, or of a mother pushed by suffering to reject or kill her child: the inversion of the mother's nurturing role signifies the collapse of all conventional meanings. In addition, Kelleher demonstrates, the focus on women's desperate nakedness, combined with their frenzied appeals for pity and succour, imparts a pornographic energy to the ostensibly sympathetic charge of these representations. As she develops her analysis, Kelleher pursues the many contradictions in famine texts' use of the female body to convey horror; while female figures are rich in emotional power, their presentation often precludes or contradicts a progressive politic. In William Carleton's The Black Prophet (1846), the passivity and even ingratitude of the famine victims highlight the active generosity of the upper-class women and men who attempt to help them, thus transforming the novel into a justification of class hierarchy rather than the call to social action it presents itself to be. Kelleher's observations here are wide-ranging and lucid. Two subsequent chapters usefully extend and complicate Kelleher's analysis of Irish famine texts. In her second chapter, Kelleher examines fictional accounts of the Irish famine written by women observers in order to explore whether and how gender difference influences strategies of representation. She resists the temptation to draw neat conclusions, finding that while "the degree of spectacle" is reduced in certain examples, particularly in the writing of the philanthropist Asenath Nicholson (70), women's texts often reproduce the by-now familiar imagery of famine motherhood, alternating between "heroic, self-sacrificing" portraits and "dehumanized, animalistic" ones (74). In her third chapter, Kelleher examines twentieth-century representations of the Irish famine to show how the female figure takes on the burden of Irish destiny; frequently, "her death [is] deemed necessary for the survival of the community" (151). In the fourth and final chapter...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 77-79
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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